Archive for October, 2011

Ecclesiastes 1 (Day 660) 22 October 2011

            Ecclesiastes is perhaps the most enigmatic book in the Bible. The title is a Greek word that translates the Hebrew word “Qohelet.” The word means “one who leads an assembly.” There was much disagreement in ancient times as to whether Qohelet/Ecclesiastes should be included in the scriptures. It is cynical. It is disturbing. It is, perhaps, a bit too honest.

            1: The identity of the author is problematic, calling himself a king here, but elsewhere speaking as a member of the court (see 12:9, for example). The introduction is in third person singular. Most of the book is in first person, but returns to third person near the end.

            2-11: The book opens with a cynical description of life on earth. The sun comes up, the sun goes down. The more things change the more they stay the same. No one controls the wind, water runs downhill, and these things happen over and over to no discernible purpose. People live, people die and are forgotten. What’s the point of it all?

            12-18: The setting for the book is given: a king in Jerusalem determines to search for wisdom and discovers that such a quest is in vain. Many have imagined that King Solomon is the Qohelet. If so, the work is a fictional account of his search for wisdom, for the language used is 700-800 years later than the time of Solomon.

 

Ecclesiastes 2 (Day 661) 23 October 2011

            1-3: Qohelet describes his continuing search for the meaning of life in drunken pleasures and finds nothing of use.

            4-11: He continues his search with building and the accumulation of wealth and all the advantages that accrue to being rich, but, having kept his wisdom about him finds that none of these things are ultimately satisfying.

            12-17: He considers wisdom and folly and concludes that there really is no advantage to either, since they both come to the same end and are forgotten.

            18-23: Worst of all, he realizes that when he is dead and gone everything he has worked for will go to someone else.

            24-26: And so he arrives at his first conclusion: the enjoyment of life is a gift from God, and God chooses to give it to whoever pleases him, and that just isn’t fair.

 

Ecclesiastes 3 (Day 662) 24 October 2011

            1-8: Probably among the ten most recognized passages in the Bible, these verses continue the cynicism of the previous chapter. Everything has its season, and the good and the bad get equal play in life. There is scant reason to rejoice at successes or bemoan failures, since the opposite condition will eventually visit as well.

            9-14: It is impossible to figure out what God is up to, he seems to be saying. The only reasonable course in life is to enjoy your work and whatever pleasure falls your way. God’s work is endurable and unalterable and therefore beyond our scrutiny and influence.

            15: This is a curious statement over which commentators differ widely. I think the sense of it is “there’s nothing new under the sun,” and the past is no more except in the mind of God.

            16-22: There is a time for justice and a time for evil; a time for righteousness and a time for wickedness. The cynicism continues: it is impossible to determine if humans are any better off than animals. All we have is the day at hand and the work before us.

 

Ecclesiastes 4 (Day 663) 25 October 2011

            1-3: This sentiment – that the dead and the unborn are better off than the living – is reminiscent of Job. The author’s perspective is too narrow, though. Oppressed people may suffer for a time but Israel’s own history provides evidence that God hears the cries of the oppressed and will come to their aid even though in human terms deliverance may seem painfully delayed.

            4: To say that all toil and skill result from envy is a sweeping indictment of humankind that goes a bit too far, I think, although it is often true.

            5-6: Verse 5 echoes several verses in Proverbs that point out the poverty caused by laziness. However, it is allowed in verse 6 that too much hard work may not be all that desirable, either.

            7-12: Another meaningless human condition, according to the author, is the case of a man with no kin, an only child who never marries. That condition is compared to companionship in which each helps the other, and a league of three companions is even stronger.

            13-16: Here is another similar comparison, that between a poor but wise young man (David?) and a foolish king who won’t listen to reason (Saul?). Verse 14 seems to hearken back to Joseph, a prisoner who became Prime Minister of Egypt. In spite of his remarkable success story, though, even Joseph was forgotten by later generations.

 

Ecclesiastes 5 (Day 664) 26 October 2011

            1-7: Much of Chapters 5, 6 and 7 read like the Book of Proverbs. Indeed, these 7 verses are proverbs having to do with speech, and particularly the way we speak in God’s presence. Our friend the fool is back, his habits to be avoided at all costs. When it comes to talking with God, watch your mouth!

            8-9: The remainder of the chapter addresses issues surrounding wealth and poverty. It is no surprise that oppressing the poor goes hand in hand with a general corruption of justice that reaches up the ladder all the way to the king. Verse 9 is impossible to translate, but seems to convey the idea that in a corrupt country the king profits all the way down the scale to the level of the fields that are plowed to produce the crops.

            10-12: Those who love money are never really satisfied. Perhaps that is why the love of money is the root of all evil. Common laborers at least have the peace of a good night’s sleep, but the rich lose sleep over the very thing they crave.

            13-17: When rich people lose everything they don’t know how to cope, and they and their families suffer. Besides, everybody leaves this life just as they came, naked and empty-handed.

            18-20: But if you find work you love you can enjoy life regardless of how wealthy you may be.

 

Ecclesiastes 6 (Day 665) 27 October 2011

            1-6: The cynicism of the Teacher is back in full force. If you’re rich but can’t enjoy life you’re no better off than a stillborn child. Verse 3 is problematic, and perhaps the best reading is, “if he does not enjoy life’s good things, then even without a decent burial a stillborn child is better off.” The point, I think, is that wealth does not guarantee a good life.

            7-9: The appetite is never satisfied; hunger always returns. In this there is no advantage to being wise, nor is poverty a disadvantage. What the eyes see is better than what the appetite craves because the act of seeing doesn’t leave you empty.

            10-12: These verses make little sense unless one imagines God standing in the shadows. God knows all that has been, and God knows what human beings are, and God knows that they cannot contend with God, who is stronger. The cynical part is that we human beings have no way of knowing what life is really all about or what will happen when we’re gone.

 

Ecclesiastes 7 (Day 666) 28 October 2011

            1-8: The Teacher was a very gloomy person. Death is better than birth, mourning is better than feasting, sorrow than laughter, rebuke than singing, the end of a thing than its beginning.

            9: On anger, compare Proverbs 14:29.

            10: Even back then they longed for the “good old days.”

            11-12: If one is wise, the fortunes of time can do little harm.

            13-14: God’s ways are inscrutable and God’s works irreversible.

            15-18: He seems to be counseling moderation in all things.

            19: Wisdom is consistently upheld as the one thing to seek above all others.

            20: Doing good deeds without sinning is the definition of righteousness, isn’t it?

            21-22: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

            23-29: His cynicism reaches a crescendo: wisdom is not to be found, women are not to be trusted, and people simply don’t turn out the way God intended.

 

Ecclesiastes 8 (Day 667) 29 October 2011

            1: Wisdom is again identified as the source of joy in life.

            2-9: A king’s authority is not to be challenged, and if his judgments are capricious the best thing to do is obey and stay out of his way.

            10-13: On the surface it may appear that the wicked benefit from their wickedness, but ultimately justice will prevail.

            14-15: Yet, because the wicked sometimes do profit and the righteous sometimes suffer, the best course of action is to eat, drink and be merry and enjoy your work. Learning to enjoy your work seems to be the crux of the matter.

            16-17: No one will ever be wise enough, however, to figure God out.

 

Ecclesiastes 9 (Day 668) 30 October 2011

            1-6: He changes his tune a bit now. Whereas before it was better to be dead than alive, now he acknowledges that “a living dog is better than a dead lion.” So, having a “share in all that happens under the sun” is a good thing after all.

            7-10: His optimism is hollow, though, for now he reveals that the reason we should enjoy life is because once we die there won’t be anything to enjoy. I’m beginning to feel a bit sorry for this fellow.

            11-12: C’est la vie. Que sera sera.

            13-18: Still, he cannot put out of his mind that good people don’t always get credit for the good they do. For Qohelet, the Teacher, that fact is the great injustice of life on earth.

 

Ecclesiastes 10 (Day 669) 31 October 2011

            1-15: More observations about the wise and the foolish. Verse 2 probably has nothing to do with political parties in 21st century America. Verses 5-7 acknowledge that nonetheless foolish people sometimes are set above the rest. Verses 8-11 acknowledge the inherent dangers in various occupations which represented the trades of the lower class.

            16-20: These are observations about rulers and leaders. They more than others enjoy the pleasures of life but even so are advised to be diligent.

 

Ecclesiastes 11 (Day 670) 1 November 2011

            1-2: Advice is given on how one should invest one’s money. Foreign trade can be profitable, but the investor should diversify seven or eight ways for protection from unseen disasters.

            3-4: Regardless of which way the wind is blowing (which way the tree falls) you have to sow when the season is right for rain. Watching the weather is no substitute for casting the seeds.

            5-6: Things that cannot be known: how a baby begins to breath; how God makes everything; whether work done in the morning or in the evening will be more profitable. In other words, work and let God worry about the rest.

            7-10: Advice for the old: enjoy life as it comes for you cannot know what might befall. Advice for the young: have fun and enjoy life, but remember that you will be held accountable for your deeds.

 

Ecclesiastes 12 (Day 671) 2 November 2011

            1-8: I think in these verses we have the crux of the matter. The Teacher is an old man bemoaning the ravages of time and aging. His cynicism can be explained by the fact that he no longer enjoys the things of life that once brought so much pleasure. His eyesight is fading, nothing gratifies him anymore and he knows he is living in his last days. Unfortunately, unlike many men and women in that condition, he is able to find little to enjoy. That makes me wonder if he truly found the wisdom he claimed to be seeking.

            6: All the items listed in this verse are part of the operation of a single well, although I doubt many wells would have had a silver rope by which to lower a golden bowl. On the other hand, a very wealthy person may possess such silly accoutrements. In any case we get a picture of the cord snapping and the bowl falling into the well and breaking, the pitcher into which the water is poured from the bowl is broken and the wheel or pulley that supports the arrangement is also broken. It is a sad image; a life is being disconnected from its source.

            8: The sayings of the Teacher which began at 1:2 ends with the same words with which they began. “All is vanity.”

9-10: The book ends with a summary of the Teacher’s life.

11-12: A general comment on wisdom literature.

13-14: The whole work is at the last swept aside with a single injunction; “Fear God and keep his commandments.” Whether one is wise or foolish, only God is the final judge.